An Academic Strikes Back:
Transgressing the Genre of Bureaucracy

Tosh Tachino
Iowa State University


In certain periods in ancient Greece (reign of Pericles and the following 100 years), rhetoric was considered a civic virtue and a practical necessity in everyday living (Katula, 2003). Since then, the importance of rhetoric was obscured, and its practice in the public arena declined considerably (Bizzell and Herzberg, 2001) until it virtually disappeared from the school curriculum at the turn of 20th century (Goggin, 2000).

However, scholarly interests in rhetoric resurged in the latter half of the 20th century, and some rhetoricians are now arguing for curricular changes in the university to include the rhetoric of civic participation (Howard, 2000).

Along with the interest in reviving rhetoric in the modern society came the revival of concepts and terminology from the classical rhetoric such as chronos and kairos. This article centers around a particularly interesting instance of civic writing to deal with the formidable bureaucracy of the U.S. embassy, and how this rhetorical event contributes to our current understanding of kairos.


The notion of "kairos" can be traced back to the rhetoric of Sophists, and is roughly translated as "timing" (Miller, 1992). Sophists used the term to explain that the effectiveness of speech is determined by the timing within the "cultural and political contexts" (Bizzell and Herzberg, 2001, p. 25). The idea was somewhat controversial because many Greek philosophers (especially Socrates and Plato) believed that the effectiveness of speech should be measured by its proximity to the objective and transcendent truth.

The notion of kairos and similar concepts were taken up by modern rhetoricians who have expanded the original definition of kairos. For example, Bitzer (1968) proposed the notion of "rhetorical situation" which invites rhetors to effect some desirable changes. For him, a situation is made "rhetorical" when rhetoric can be used to resolve some unsatisfactory situations. A rhetorical situation contains the element of what he calls "exigence" (or "motive" in Burke's [1950, cited in Miller, 1994] term) and it determines "the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected" (p. 7). Bitzer's notion of rhetorical situation is important since it inspired others to investigate how rhetorical moments arise and to reinvigorate the study of kairos.

Miller (1992), for example, critiques Bitzer's description of rhetorical situation and kairos implicated in his argument by distinguishing chronos and kairos. Citing Smith (1986, cited in Miller, 1992), Miller describes chronos as objective and measurable time. On the other hand, "kairos appears as a critical occasion for decision or action (or revelation, as in the biblical use of the term), an occasion that is objectively presented or divinely ordained" (p. 312) against the background of chronos. Miller's main criticism of Bitzer is that he defined rhetorical situation and exigence independent of the rhetor; Miller argues, "Bitzer would say that kairoi are important exigencies punctuating chronos, special moments of opportunity that present themselves every now and then" (p. 312). Miller argues that the temporal aspect of kairos (marked by chronos) must be coupled with the spatial aspect of kairos, which includes the rhetor who interacts with chronos. Citing White (1987, cited in Miller, 1992), Miller portrays kairos as "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved" (p. 313).

More recently, Yates and Orlikowski (2002) emphasize the possibility of kairos "as enacted, arising when socially situated rhetors choose and/or craft an opportune time to interact with a particular audience in a particular way within particular circumstances" (p. 109). Yates and Orlikowski do not deny the forces of rhetorical situation which constrain the possible responses, but they emphasize that the rhetor is an integral part in creating the kairotic moment. A salient example of their view of kairos is seen in the work of Artemeva (2003) who describes how her former student, Sami, received a promotion in an engineering company. Sami was frustrated by the attitude of most engineers in his firm who thought that documentation and writing were waste of their time. At that time, upper management of the company requested a senior engineer in Sami's group to deliver a presentation regarding a particular implementation plan. Sami wanted to share some of his ideas related to the implementation plan, but he was having a hard time having his ideas heard by the senior engineer. Instead of succumbing to the routine corporate culture that did not favor written communication, Sami decided to take the matter into his own hands and prepared a well-thought-out proposal that was specifically addressed to the upper management. Although his proposal was uncalled for and his action was uncommon in the firm, the upper management was impressed by Sami's initiative and his proposal presentation, chose his plan over the senior manager's, and promoted Sami to Director of R&D. In this case Sami saw a kairotic moment when the upper management asked for a presentation even though it was not him who was asked to present. By taking his initiative to put forward a proposal, Sami was actively seizing the kairotic moment.

The extent to which the rhetor shapes the rhetorical event can go even further. The rhetorical event described in this article shows that the rhetor can introduce an alien genre into a community of practice and createa kairotic moment.

First Round: Morning Chore Goes Terribly Wrong

It all started on the morning of April 25, 2003 when I went to the United States embassy to obtain my student visa to the U.S. By that time I had been already accepted to a Ph.D. program in the United States (with valid documentation), fully funded for the duration of my stay. Therefore, I had never thought that the task was more than a morning chore.

I became a little nervous once I was inside the building and heard rather heated exchanges between applicants and the interviewers. But I tried to keep my composure, knowing that I had a legitimate case and all the required documents.

I started to panic when the first words that came out of the consular officer was, "this doesn't look good." What did she mean "this doesn't look good"? As far as I knew, I had all the required documents outlined in the letter they had send me when I had booked an interview. The consular officer informed me that I needed to demonstrate "ties" to my "home country" (Japan) and the fact that I had not been there for five years seriously underminded my ability to demonstrate ties. She rejected my application and recommended that I fly to Tokyo and apply for a visa there. I protested her decision, telling her that I had been living in Canada for five years, and I was able to present documentations of "ties" described in the letter. However, she dismissed my claim, saying that I did not "live" in Canada; I was only "visiting."

Preparing A Ground: Exigence for Civic Writing

At that time, I was still writing my M.A. research essay and preparing for a presentation for the Inkshed conference, so flying back to Japan was not an option. I also resented the fact that they spoke as if I had nothing better to do than travel to the other side of the planet just to apply for a visa.

Frustrated with the situation, I carefully reread the letter that describes the requirement of "ties":

In order to qualify for most categories of U.S. non-immigrant visas, you must be able to demonstrate to a U.S. Consular Officer that you have a permanent residence outside the United States that you do not intend to abandon. You may satisfy this requirement by showing you have strong economic and social ties to your country of residence. "Ties" are factors that would require you to return to your country of residence, upon completion of your temporary visit to the United States . . . Applicants should ask themselves the following question: "If I were visiting in the United States, what factors would cause me to end my visit and depart the United States?" Relevant factors, or "ties," outside the U.S. could be such things as a job, property, dependent children, or other important responsibilities that require your presence in your home country. You must demonstrate to the Consular Officer that these "ties" are strong enough to compel you to return to your home country upon completion of your visit to the United States. (p. 2)

After reading this passage, I intuited a rhetorical situation. The language they used to describe this requirement sounded as though I needed to persuade the consular officer. With Artemeva's article still fresh in my mind, I felt that my rhetorical action might influence their bureaucratic decision.

So I started formulating an argument that might convince them that I had "ties" outside the United States, and I looked for a good definition. I was dissatisfied with the description in the letter for several reasons. First, the letter describes what a tie does (something that compels one to leave the United States), but it does not define what it is. Using their strict definition, fanatic criminals who kidnap one and take him/her to Afghanistan would be a tie since they would compel him/her to leave the United States. Second, the official definition does not seem to make a distinction between relationship and role. Occupying a particular role (e.g. parent, spouse, child) does not necessarily entail close relationship (or "a tie"). In other words, one can be a husband (role) with no relationship to his estranged wife (relationship), but the definition does not seem to take into account of the differences. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the official description does not provide us with methodology to measure the existence of ties.

As an academic who was trained in research methodology, I felt that the above mentioned flaws were serious enough to challenge their definition. However, challenging the immigration law was beyond my ability, and without being familiar withy the genre of bureaucracy (and understanding the community of practice), I did not stand a chance to secure a victory in the lion's den.

I was also aware that my line of thinking originated from my training in the academy, so the consular officers may not appreciate my argument and evidence unless they are introduced to my community of practice. In addition, my expertise in writing was limited to academic writing, so if I were to have any control over the situation at all, I needed to introduce an alien genre, knowing that they might reject it.

Creating A Kairotic Moment

By this time, I had a mental outline of the resulting document, organized like a canonical academic essay. I also had a vague idea of what the definition of a "tie" should sound like. But the stipulative definition of a tie needed to be supported by the literature (at least in academic writing), so I took out some contemporary anthologies on adult relationships.

After reading some additional books and articles, I was able to write a reasonable literature review and a definition of a "tie." The literature was also helpful in determining my methodology for measuring "ties." At the same time, I started asking my family, friends, and employers to provide letters of support so that I could use them as evidence for my ties.

After weeks of writing and revising, I came up with a document that contained the following: a title page, an executive summary, two-page table of contents, a 13 page (single spaced) essay, references, and 31 pages of appendices1.

The first chapter of the document begins with a review of the relevant literature (attachment theory and how it applies to adult relationships), and it defines "tie" as a psychological proximity, created and maintained over a period of time through regular supportive interactions; a tie "may manifest itself as regular interpersonal communication, shared understanding, mutual fostering of personal growth, and emotional and instrumental support" (p. 3). The definition is followed by the methodology section justifying the following three methodologies: introspective analysis, letters of support, and discourse analysis.

Chapter two describes my ties to Japan, emphasizing emotional and instrumental supports as well as mutual fostering of personal growth. The chapter also incorporates Bakhtinian notion of human consciousness and first language (L1), and how L1 acquisition is important in later cognitive and social development

Chapter three describes my ties to Canada, and it starts by introducing the notion of acculturation (Schumann, 1978) and how it affected my Canadian identity. The chapter discusses my social, professional, and economic ties, and these ties culminate in my decision to start my immigration process to Canada.

The conclusion of the document resembles that of an academic essay, but I consciously used stronger language to increase the certainty of my claims. For example, the first sentence starts with "Through last two chapters, it should be clear that the relationship that I have with many individuals in Japan and Canada constitute 'ties' . . . ." (emphasis added). Similarly, the last sentence ends with " . . . it is safe to conclude that my application meets the criteria for the U.S. visa application."

My rationale for abandoning a more tentative language common in academic writing is that nonacademics often respond to stronger language (Berkenkotter, 1999; MacDonald, 2003), and I wanted to make my stance clear since there was a possibility that they would only skim the document. So if there were to read any section at all, it was likely to be the conclusion.

Second Round: An Academic Strikes Back

Once I was satisfied with the document, I made another appointment with the U.S. embassy to have an interview. Although I was confident that my argument was sound, I was less certain about their reaction to my transgression of their genre. The consular officer seemed taken aback by my document and said in a somewhat dismissive tone, "So you wrote a thesis about ties?" I gave her a synopsis of the document, frequently referring to certain sections in the document to assure her that everything she needed know was in the document.

I was told to wait, and I could see the consular officer talking with her colleagues and superiors, showing the document. At one point, it seemed the consular officer and another woman was having an argument over my case.

It seemed I had avoided an outright rejection, but their decision seemed still up in the air as I waited for a long time. Eventually they called my name, but the consular officer told me, "I still don't know what to do with you."

So, I was to leave the embassy and wait until they reach a decision by the end of the week. The week passed with no phone calls from the embassy, so I called them on the following week, and the supervisor of my consular officer told me that the consular officer had made some phone calls to Tokyo, and everything appeared positive, but she advised me to wait until my consular officer would call me the following day. When I received the phone call the next day, the consular officer told me to come to the embassy to pick up my visa.

Conclusion: The Role of a Rhetor in Kairos

The significance of this anecdote is that the rhetor can, under certain circumstances, play a significant role in creating and seizing a kairotic moment. In this case the situation did not explicitly call for a rhetorical response, but like Sami, I saw the possibility of kairos, "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved" (Miller, 1992, p. 313). In this case I, as a rhetor, made a conscious choice to introduce an alien genre into the bureaucracy, and the embassy positively responded to the rhetorical action.


1.A copy of the document is available online at The online copy was slightly modified from the original to suite the medium.


Artemeva, N. (2003). Traveling in space and time: A study of learning trajectories in student acquisition of engineering communication strategies. Inkshed, 20 (2), 9-15.

Berkenkotter, C. (1999). Scientific writing and scientific thinking: Writing the scientific habit of mind. In Goggin, M. D. (Ed.). Inventing the Discipline (pp. 270-284). Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Bitzer, L. F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1-14.

Bizzell, P. & Herzberg, B. (2001) The Rhetorical Tradition: Reading from Classical Times to the Present. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Goggin, M. D. (2000). Authoring a Discipline. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Howard, R. M. (2000). Introduction. In Shamoon, L. K., Howard, R. M., Jamieson, S., & Schwegler, R. A. (Eds). Coming of Age: The Advance Writing Curriculum (xiii-xxii). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Katula, R. A. (2003). The origin of rhetoric: Literacy and democracy in Ancient Greece. In Murphy, J. J. & Katula, R. A. (Eds.). A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric (pp. 3-20). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

MacDonald, S. P. (2003, March). Syntax and verb choice in journalistic treatment of science. Paper presented at Conference for College Composition and Communication, New York.

Miller, C. R. (1992). Kairos in the rhetoric of science. In Witte, S. P., Nakadate, N., & Cherry, R. D. (Eds.). Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Miller, C. R. (1994). Genre as social action. In Freedman and Medway (Eds.). Genre and the New Rhetoric. London and Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.

Schumann, J. (1978). The acculturation model for second language acquisition. In Gingras, R. C., (Ed.). Second language acquisition and foreign language teaching (pp. 27-50). Arlington, Virginia: Center for Applied Linguistics.

The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre (pp. 103-121). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

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